Liverpool’s third tie, and fifth game, of their Champions League defence kicks off tonight in Bulgaria against CSKA Sofia. Reds boss Rafa Benitez admits that tonights opponents are the toughest they’ve face so far this season: "We have a lot of respect for their abilities. You never know in football what can happen. The other two rounds turned out to be easier for us in the end, even though both our opponents played well. This team is stronger. They are compact and have a lot of pace. We must be careful."
Liverpool’s manager is not joined on this trip by the chairman and chief executive of the club, David Moores and Rick Parry. The two officials are reported to have stayed back in England to hammer out some deals for some new players, and to chase up progress on the sale of Milan Baros. The Reds move for Michael Owen is one piece of business that the pair will be hoping they can finalise this week, although Rafa himself is happy to use the full length of the transfer window to get his squad together for the new season.
That squad is limited at the moment, with injury meaning the Reds have only sent 17 recognised first team players to Bulgaria. Rafa may be forced to play Milan Baros due to the lack of strikers he has available tonight, although Baros will probably start on the bench and only be brought on in an absolute emergency.
If Baros does play tonight he’ll be cup-tied for both the Champions League and the UEFA Cup, thus reducing his value to those clubs who are in Europe. Rafa is hoping that Fernando Morientes, himself cup-tied last season for Liverpool’s campaign in Europe, strts to show his true qualities, beginning tonight. Rafa said: "I hope to see the best of Morientes in the next few months. When you see a player of his quality training as hard as he is doing, then you know he will score goals. He has good ability, is good in the air, can pass and can shoot with both feet. He maybe needs to improve with the pace of the game here and he knows that, but we need to start giving him more opportunities to score."
After sending Le Tallec on loan to Sunderland last week, and with Peter Crouch joining long-term injured Pongolle and Mellor, Rafa’s striking options are limited, as he says: "We have Morientes, Baros and Cisse as our strikers for this game. The others are injured. I shall use the best players for winning. If I think I can manage the situation without playing Baros then I will do, but if I think he has to play, then he will do.
He continued: "My main idea is to win the game. It depends on the game and the situation as to whether we use Milan. I like Milan. He is a good player. But we need to use the money to buy players in other positions. It is not because we are disappointed with Milan. We need this money so we can look at other positions and improve them. We have six or seven strikers at the club and we know we can get money for one of them, so this is one thing we can do. It is like if you have three left backs at a club. You don’t need that many, so you can sell one if you want.
What Rafa was trying to put forward was that he will only buy or sell players for the right price. If Baros doesn’t attract the fee that the club think he is worth, then he won’t be going: "I read a lot of rumours about the situation and some clubs seem to be asking about taking the player on loan. We are not thinking about letting him out on loan. We will keep him if we don’t have a good enough offer." As for who Liverpool buy next, there’s no hint of any names from the manager, but he wants a new centre-back: "We will try to find a centre back good enough for us, with or without any money from a Baros sale. It’s just that if we have more money then it makes things easier. We are working with Zak Whitbread and we are happy with him, but we need another player in that position." Existing central-defender Sami Hyypia today announced that he’ll be signing a new contract tomorrow which will keep him at Anfield until 2008.
Rafa also pointed out that Liverpool’s early start to competitive action makes it difficult to get players they are interested in just yet, as clubs are still in the middle of their own pre-season preparations. He said: "It’s really difficult to sign the players we want at the moment. Our pre-season started a lot earlier than most clubs and that was a problem for us in terms of signing players. Some clubs are only deciding now what kind of signings they will need, but we have already been talking about it for three weeks. We still have three more weeks before the transfer deadline."
One signing that was more or less agreed before last season was for new goalkeeper Pepe Reina. With Jerzy Dudek suffering an awful elbow injury in training earlier in the week Rafa will be glad that the deal was all sealed so early. Reina himself believes that tonight’s match against CSKA Sofia will be a tough one, but with the right belief he says that the Reds could go on and repeat their success in the European Cup: "Rafael Benítez has done some excellent work in European competition over the last few years and I see no reason why that can’t continue," said the former Villarreal player. He went on: "The manager wants to make an even bigger mark in the game by winning the Champions League again and with this group of players I believe we can do it. I believe in this team. We deserve to be called European champions. CSKA Sofia now stand in our way of reaching the group stage. The away game in Sofia is my biggest concern. It will be very difficult over there, so we will need to be very disciplined to go through. At this early stage of the season you just don’t know how dangerous these ties are going to be."
Reina also says he feels that he has already settled in at his new club, helped in many ways by his Spanish compatriates: "I feel very comfortable at the club. The rest of the Liverpool players have given me lots of support making me feel part of the group. I’m very happy that I chose to come here. Liverpool was always a club that appealed to me, even before they won the Champions League. This is one of Europe’s biggest clubs and the manager convinced me that his project is going to be huge. I also shared many conversations with Liverpool’s Spanish players, like Xabi, who all told me that I should sign for them."